Sunday, August 4, 2013

Secret Fasting - Private Struggles

Whenever you fast, don’t put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting won’t be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  -  Matthew 6.16-18

Fasting is an interesting concept to some of us.  But even more interesting is the wide variety of understandings and misunderstandings held among God’s people.  If you don’t fully understand the concept, don’t feel too badly, there are lots of misconceptions about fasting and lots of bad teaching.  And this has always been the case. 

Before we get too far into fasting, however, let’s get the main lesson from Jesus here – the lesson he wants his disciples to live: fast secretly.  Again, Jesus’ command about fasting is: do it so that others don’t know.  Fast SO secretly … that you’ll even disguise yourself by primping a bit. 

One big temptation faced by all who attempt fasting is the temptation to receive attention from those around us.  If we are going to go without food - if we’re going to “suffer” voluntarily – we want others to know.  It’s an irresistible urge for some. 

Fasters want others to know that they’re doing something “holy” or “spiritual,” and they want others to refrain from tempting them.  And often, fasters want some leeway for their behavior.  Like when a smoker is quitting, they use their suffering as an excuse to misbehave, and others are expected to tip-toe around them and allow for their grouchy or rude disposition. 

I use smoking as an example, because I think Jesus’ teaching about fasting privately applies to many things other than missing meals. 

Ask yourself something simple: can you deal with a struggle - without grumbling, complaining, or putting on some kind of show?  Can you go without something – anything – and do so in a way that others won’t give you sympathy or excuse you for bad behavior? 

We have lots of these difficulties, don’t we?  Trouble at work or school, challenges in marriage, hormonal issues, even the weather can be an excuse for us to be unloving, unkind, impolite and selfish.  Why do people need to know you’re suffering, struggling or fasting?  So you can get a hug, some sympathy, an excuse or some other kind of attention.  This attention-seeking behavior is so common, most people accept it as a fact of life.

The wealthier and safer the community, the more pervasive this phenomenon becomes.  In my community (Orange County, CA) it’s crazy.  People have become so accustomed to great healthcare, decent families, abundant food, fresh water and safety – any little thing becomes a “tragedy” – a calamity.  We are a people very unlikely to experience a deadly plague, famine, killer storms, war or holocaust.  Most of us are unnerved by a room that’s too hot or cold or a meal that’s a few minutes late or improperly seasoned.  Nothing is too small.  The mere loss of a pet can send some into depression, while others have a fit of rage over a scratch on their car.

This makes Jesus’ teaching on fasting especially valuable to we who are so blessed, for in fasting privately we can grow stronger, tougher, more resilient - without having disaster thrust upon us.  It’s a good thing for us, merely because it helps us to grow into someone who can at least understand that we’re not really “starving” just because we've missed a meal or two or even for a couple of days.  (Yes, there is a huge difference between genuine hunger and craving food)

And so I've suggested one reason for fasting – for personal growth – a voluntary struggle that’s kept privately between you and God.  Learning to trust God and how He can work with you, and getting support from no one but Him – it’s a powerful thing. 

There are other lessons about fasting … I’ll tell you some of my favorite fasting stories from the Old Testament next time. 

But for now, keep the eyes of your heart focused on the idea of private struggle.  Prayerfully consider the idea that you won’t allow any difficulty to become an excuse to misbehave, to get attention or pity, or in any way be selfish. 

getting schooled

There’s something for us to learn here – to experience.  We aren't born with this ability, and our culture certainly won’t support this, but scripture is packed with possibility for us to LEARN and GROW through suffering.  Paul learned it … check it out:
I've learned … to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret … of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  (Philippians 4:11-12)
Of course the real challenge for us is whether we even WANT to learn this.  Most people don’t want to learn to be strong and selfless.  We love our excuses and rationalizations more than we love strength, and we refuse to accept the idea that we cannot have it both ways.  Get stronger or get weaker and more pitiful – it’s your choice.  And most people will choose to be pitied, so they can be comforted. 

One more thing...

Remember: only the strong can truly help the weak.  Two weak people can cry together and commiserate, but only a strong person can lift up the weaker one and help him or her.  So when you are considering your path, remember it affects those around you.  The weaker you are, the more you suck the life out of those around you.  The stronger you are, the more you’re able to carry your own burdens and also a bit of the burdens of others.  The stronger you are … the more you can give.

That means this kind of strength is actually a kind of love! 

Some will confuse the desire for strength with ego, honor, self-righteousness or earning one’s salvation.  If that’s your motive, then it’s sin.  But when your motive is to struggle/get stronger so you can help others … then you are working to become a great disciple, for then you’re becoming strong like Jesus.  Amen!

examine yourself

Big girls don't cry - they help little girls

For now, just pray about this and start paying attention to your own heart.  Examine yourself and how often you carry the burdens of others vs. seeking attention for yourself and your struggles.  See how honest you can be with yourself and with God.  We’ll dig more deeply next time, and hopefully set you on a right path.

A wife of noble character who can find?
She’s worth far more than rubies!
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She is clothed with strength & dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.  
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household and doesn’t eat the bread of idleness.
(from Proverbs 31)

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